Nation/World

Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ said the first female grandmaster ‘never faced men.’ Now she’s suing.

In 1968, Nona Gaprindashvili was the only female chess player to enter the International Tournament in Gothenburg, Sweden. Throughout the tournament, she sat across from nine men and topped seven of them, placing third overall.

Recapping Gaprindashvili’s success, the New York Times noted the chess player’s “never-say-die spirit.”

As it happens, 1968 is the same year that Beth Harmon, the fictional heroine of the blockbuster Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit,” was the only female competitor at a respected chess tournament set in Moscow. But during one scene at the tournament, a commentator remarked on how unusual it was that Harmon, a woman, was competing. Then he said: “There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men.”

The camera then turned to a character resembling Gaprindashvili sitting in the audience.

That moment, shown in the final episode of the series, is now the subject of a defamation lawsuit that Gaprindashvili filed against Netflix on Thursday.

“The allegation that Gaprindashvili ‘has never faced men’ is manifestly false, as well as being grossly sexist and belittling,” the lawsuit states. Alleging false light and defamation, the suit demands at least $5 million in damages.

“Netflix brazenly and deliberately lied about Gaprindashvili’s achievements for the cheap and cynical purpose of ‘heightening the drama’ by making it appear that its fictional hero had managed to do what no other woman, including Gaprindashvili, had done,” the lawsuit adds.

Recounting the numerous times Gaprindashvili faced men - including the 1977 tournament that led to the Georgian becoming the first woman to achieve the title of grandmaster - the lawsuit compares the trajectories of the real-life Gaprindashvili and the fictional Harmon. The lawsuit also points out an irony: In attempting to create an inspiring story about a woman excelling in a male-dominated sport, Netflix “humiliated” Gaprindashvili, a trailblazer for women in chess, who some called the “real life Beth Harmon” after the show’s release.

Netflix did not respond to a request for comment late Thursday. The company told the New York Times that it believed Gaprindashvili’s lawsuit had no merit. “Netflix has only the utmost respect for Ms. Gaprindashvili and her illustrious career, but we believe this claim has no merit and will vigorously defend the case,” the company said.

Following its October 2020 debut on the streaming platform, “The Queen’s Gambit” was a resounding success. At the time, it broke the record for the most-viewed scripted limited series, with 62 million households watching the series in the first 28 days. The series inspired a record surge in users on Chess.com, a popular online game platform, and it reopened a debate about the sexism that continues to pervade the sport.

But before “The Queen’s Gambit” - and even the eponymous 1983 novel by Walter Tevis - there was Nona Gaprindashvili. Born in Georgia in 1941, Gaprindashvili began playing professional chess when she was 13. At 20, she became the women’s World Champion, a title she successfully defended for the better part of two decades. Georgian female chess players continue to follow in her footsteps.

But Gaprindashvili did not only play against women. During the 1964-65 Hastings International Chess Congress in England, she notched victories against four male players. In 1965, Gaprindashvili played 28 men simultaneously in Dorset, England.

In 1977, Gaprindashvili was the only woman invited to the Lone Pine International Tournament in California. She faced nine men and ended up tying for first place. Following that win, Gaprindashvili became the first woman to earn the title of International Grandmaster.

During her career, she has faced off against numerous male grandmasters, including Boris Spassky, Mikhail Tal and Viswanathan Anand - all former winners of the World Chess Championship. Although she never beat those three, she drew a game against Anand, a five-time World Champion, in 1988.

Gaprindashvili’s lawsuit argues that Netflix knew - or should have known - her history and should not have included a line saying she never faced men, as the show had notable chess experts on hand with whom to consult. And, after the series aired, Gaprindashvili confronted Netflix about the error, demanding a public statement about the false line, an apology and a retraction, the lawsuit states.

But Netflix, the lawsuit alleges, dismissed the argument that the statement was defamatory, calling it, rather, “innocuous.”

Rising to prominence as a woman in chess was not easy, Gaprindashvili’s lawsuit notes. Early on, men played especially viciously against her, always taking games until the bitter end and never agreeing to draws. She also wrote about discrimination in a 1976 book, according to the lawsuit. In the book, she proclaimed: “The term ‘Women’s Chess’ has expired.”

“I am proud that I have my share in promoting the creative emancipation of women in chess,” she wrote, according to the lawsuit. “I had my share in helping women to overcome psychological barriers separating them from ‘man’s chess.’”

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